As 2021 unfolds, what’s the top element that will convince consumers to book a future cruise? “‘Flexibility’ is definitely key, but the second word to focus on is ‘value,’” believes Ken Muskat, EVP and chief operating officer, MSC Cruises USA.
The combination of those two elements is the best way for advisors to tap into pent-up consumer demand, he says: “They’re anxious to get out [but] still a little nervous, which is why flexibility is so key and why value is so key.”
Since last summer, MSC Cruises has been offering various promotions, including its most recent Wave Season offer that includes up to $400 onboard credit to create value on a three-, four- or seven-night cruise. To address the "flexibility" factor, for bookings through January 31, the line is allowing guests to reschedule a booked cruise up to 48 hours prior to departure.
Muskat says MSC and other U.S. cruise operators also are seeing demand for “close to home” and “short cruises” that include a private island experience. Those ports, operated by the line, allow “the social bubble” of the cruise experience to continue in a well-controlled environment ashore.
After cruising restarts in the U.S., he thinks the three- and four-night cruises will be most popular for the first few months, and then that will gradually increase into seven nights.
MSC Grandiosa, which restarted sailings in Europe in 2020.
“We’re also feeling confident about safety [when U.S. cruises restart] as we’ve had a good head start,” Muskat says, pointing to the line’s successful restart of European cruising with MSC Grandiosa. More than 30,000 guests have sailed on Italy-originating cruises since August.
While those voyages were temporarily suspended after new holiday season travel rules were instituted by the Italian government, the voyages are expected to restart January 24. MSC Magnifica will also resume cruises in February.
With MSC Grandiosa's sailings, “we learned a lot, did a lot of testing—not simply testing guests and crew but also testing of the experience,” says Muskat, who adds that guest feedback from passengers who sailed on those voyages “show you can still have an incredible cruise experience."
As for new health and safety protocols, Muskat says that the European experience has shown that once passengers board (knowing that everyone has negative tests), “people have no problem following the rules," with the exception early on of “a few people who swayed away from shore excursions.” The company took a hard line on that and denied reboarding to those who violated the protocols.
Throughout the European experience, “you learn how to evolve,” he acknowledges. This month, MSC Cruises added or enhanced several protocols. “Most likely, the things we’re seeing likely working in Europe will be things we’re doing here,” and likely even a bit more, he saYS.
Will a vaccine be required for boarding a cruise ship in the U.S.? Will that be an industry standard? Muskat declined to speculate what the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) might require, but in terms of encouraging cruise bookings, he feels it is a positive development.
"We believe the vaccine will help alleviate some concerns,” he says. “There’s still a lot being learned.” Muskat adds people will likely still wear masks and adhere to social distancing for awhile.
In terms of training crew to operate U.S. voyages, he said that even before the CDC would agree that the line could restart cruise, the line has moved proactively to introduce video conference training modules that can be completed virtually by crew members from home. In addition, the CDC requirements for a conditional certificate to sail would include simulation voyages with volunteers.
He wouldn’t predict when cruising could restart, but “we are actively engaged with the CDC and other relevant health authorities.” Still, Muskat emphasizes that “we’re not rushing into anything" and will restart cruising from the U.S. "in the safest way."
When MSC Cruises does restart sailings from PortMiami and Port Canaveral, all voyages will call at the Ocean Cay MSC Marine Reserve, the line's private Bahamian island. That eco-reserve and beach destination was newly opened in late 2019 and MSC Cruises had only three months of operations there until the global shutdown last year.
“It’s ideal for social distancing: With two miles of beaches, people never feel crowded,” Muskat says. “It’s super spread out and guests can relax and enjoy the natural beauty of the island.”
For guests who may wonder about protocols ashore for island workers, Muskat told Travel Agent that all Ocean Cay staffers must live on the island. They're also "tested before arriving there, tested on a regular basis, and if they do for any reason leave the island, they cannot return without a test."
At PortMiami, “we’re well received and well positioned,” he says. The line is also preparing for the future. A new terminal project is proceeding there, and that facility will open in several years.
Port Canaveral in central Florida is a new Florida homeport for MSC Cruises, as well. “It’s such a pull for the drive market, for people willing to drive as much as five, six and seven hours,” Muskat emphasizes.
In 2021, the line is launching two new ships: MSC Virtuosa in spring and the MSC Seashore in summer. MSC Seashore will home port at PortMiami starting in November. “MSC Seaside has been so popular in the U.S., and Seashore is a bigger version of Seaside with even more elements,” Muskat says.
As the first of two enriched Seaside EVO Class ships, MSC Seashore has larger public spaces, more staterooms and the highest ratio of outdoor space per guest of any MSC Cruises ship. In addition, the ship will include a new double-deck show lounge below the aft pool; an extended indoor main pool allowing for more outdoor space; and new specialty dining restaurants, with an area connected to the ship’s outdoor promenade for al fresco dining.
Launching in April, MSC Virtuosa is the line’s second Meraviglia Plus Class ship (the first was MSC Grandiosa). Highlights include a two-deck Mediterranean-style promenade lined with shops and restaurants and topped by one of the longest LED domes at sea. The ship offers guests five pools, a large aqua park, bowling alley, F1 racing simulators and an indoor sportsplex.
While COVID-19, any potential restart regulations and concerns about “when” cruising will restart tend to be top of mind for many advisors, Muskat urges people to be positive. He reports that guests who've sailed over the past few months in Europe have reported on their guest satisfaction surveys that they've had a great experience even with some of the changes in onboard/ashore operations that will likely define the U.S. restart.
“It’s going to be a restart, going to be a phased approach, going to take a lot of patience and a lot of flexibility but we’re excited about it,” stresses Muskat. “You have to start somewhere. I’m still very optimistic about 2021."
Riding the Wave
To entice consumers to book future cruises, most lines this month have Wave Season offers. MSC recently announced an enhanced "Get On Board" program and a Wave Season Offer. Last week, Regent Seven Seas Cruises announced a value-packed Wave Season promotion with a two suite category upgrade.
Azamara's guests can take advantage of a new Wave offer for bookings through March 31, 2021. They'll enjoy savings of up to 40 percent for select sailings between March 20, 2021 and May 13, 2022. Other perks include complimentary Wi-Fi for guests staying in an ocean-view category or higher stateroom, plus exclusive cultural events and consumer flexibility with the company’s “Cruise with Confidence” program; that allows guests to book by January 31, 2021 and change their voyage up to 48 hours before the sailing.
Once cruising restarts in the U.S., many cruisers are expected to drive to their cruise embarkation port, as Muskat mentioned. Many are seeking to avoid air travel or to assure they their own personal car available for a pre- or post-cruise beach, resort or theme park stay.
One option for those who'd like to cut off 855 miles of Interstate travel between Virginia and Florida is Amtrak’s Auto Train. It operates daily between Lorton, VA, just south of Washington D.C., and Sanford, FL, in the Orlando area.
Transporting both the travelers and their cars, the train has both Coach (capacity controlled) and Sleeper Cars (with private compartments) so there is good social distancing. Advisors can check out our recent "Just Back" articles with details about staying in an Auto Train Roomette and the Auto Train experience in Part One and Part Two of that series.
Virtual training continues as a focus for many advisors using any "down time" to become specialists in particular products. One new resource? Earlier this month, Ponant launched its new Ponant Academy, which provides insights into the luxury expedition line’s onboard experience, benefits of sailing on its 12 ships, a look at the line's far-flung destinations visited and tips for closing the sale
Graduates of the new Ponant Academy also will receive a $200 gift card when the advisor makes his or her first Ponant booking; five CLIA credits; two CEU credits from The Travel Institute and a Ponant Specialist diploma. Visit www.ponantacademy.com.